Being a Hollywood executive is like being a gambler. Coming home with $2,000 in your pocket is pretty impressive, and some execs would happily brag about such a thing. But few like to openly discuss the fact they left the house with $4,000.
Every week, Hollywood celebrates the biggest grossing films like a gambler, crowing about their numbers. However, this year has changed and studios were a bit more careful with their spending, leading to a crop of films with massive profit margins. Nevertheless, Hollywood is never without their turkeys – the rise in overseas business (thanks to the proliferation of international theaters and 3D houses) doesn’t hide the fact that studios usually only take home 40% of international ticket sales. Add to that a severely weakened DVD market (few are compelled to turn the “hits” of today into collectibles) and the stakes are higher than ever, with failures making more damage on the studio ledger than ever before.
Studios are fickle about releasing their marketing numbers, but while you can always hazard a guess about what an ad campaign can cost (anywhere from $30-$100 million), we’re stuck with “announced” production budget numbers in determining how much a film cost a studio. With those numbers, we decided to take a look at the year’s most and least successful ventures, dollar for dollar.
The year’s biggest bargains:
1. The Blockbusters – “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two,” “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part One,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”
While the news was mixed for the year’s highest grossing films, no one could doubt they came at a somewhat cheaper price than your usual massive blockbuster. 'Potter' has the numbers that stand out as requiring a bit of deeper scrutiny. Warner Bros. doesn’t like to spend any less than $100 million advertising their 'Potter' films (particularly the last one), but the 3D surcharge helped the picture become the series’ highest grossing adventure, with $1.3 billion in worldwide ticket sales. The studio steadfastly claims the bifurcated final chapter in the series cost $250 million, a price tag justified by the first 'Deathly Hallows' and its $956 million global take.
While 'Transformers' isn't exactly the thriftiest franchise around, it’s a credit to director Michael Bay that he could blow up the world one more time on a budget of $195 million. A lot of that comes from sponsorship and corporate product tie-ins, but the film nonetheless paid for itself with the boatload of merchandising sales that followed the $1.12 billion worldwide take, easily the series’ best. Of course, the reason super-director Bay keeps returning to this well is because, in addition to his directing fee, he gets a massive cut not only of the box office profit, but also a cut of the back-end gross and a solid slice of the toy sales. The dust hasn’t settled on Bay’s final earnings from part three, but considering the less successful part two allowed Bay to pocket $125 million, we’d say Paramount and Hasbro are going to have to share a sizable portion of that profit.
Disinterest and skepticism followed “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” leading to the series’ worst performance in America, even with inflated 3D prices. But overseas, they haven’t been as reluctant to embrace the 3D format, allowing 'Pirates' to collect $1.04 billion globally. This installment carried a massive $250 million price tag, possibly the year’s costliest movie, but it’s hard to argue with a billion dollars, even if Johnny Depp and Jerry Bruckheimer were probably heavy back-end participants. No such sharing for Summit, even with 'Breaking Dawn Part One' coming in underneath its predecessors with $649 million worldwide. Even at its most expensive, this 'Twilight' installment only checked in at Summit at a cost of $110 million. Man, someone think of the children.
2. “The Hangover Part Two”
Even as the first film was becoming a box office landmark for R-rated comedy, Warner Bros. knew it wouldn’t take a lot to reunite the Wolf Pack. This grossout boys-behaving-badly sequel got lucky, as none of the first film’s participants had yet become household names (not for lack of trying, of course). The result? $581 million in global ticket sales off a solid $80 million budget. Given that director Todd Phillips’ popularity stems from finishing movies on time at a manageable budget, it’s reasonable to speculate the upcoming third film will again sport a price tag under $100 million.
3. The Toons – “Kung Fu Panda 2: The Kaboom of Doom,” “The Smurfs,” “Rio,” “Cars 2” and “Puss In Boots”
Even with a number of high-profile stinkers in the genre (none grossing $200 million stateside), the CG-animated kids film remains the best bet in Hollywood. While “Kung Fu Panda 2” mysteriously underperformed domestically, the second film chop-socky’d its way to $500 million overseas for a satanic $666 million tally. While DreamWorks is more than willing to spend to advertise their product, a production budget of $150 million, and the ancillary venues that can only be enjoyed by animated fare, suggests the studio came home very happy.
Even with $110 million sunk into the budget, no one expected much from the star-less, half-animated “The Smurfs.” Those predicting doom for the would-be franchise Smurfed up big-time, if $562 million in global receipts have anything to do with it. Meanwhile, Blue Sky, who regularly keeps their productions on the cheap, sported a $90 million price tag for the $484-million-earning “Rio.” And those ready to sound the death-knell for “Cars 2” and “Shrek” spinoff “Puss In Boots” should hold their horses: while both fell below their predecessors stateside, 'Boots' collected $367 million off a $130 million budget, while “Cars 2” out-grossed the first picture in the series with $551 million worldwide. There are chinks in that Pixar armor, given that the sequel registered some of the lowest attendance numbers in the studio's history, and at $200 million was the costliest of the year’s animated films, but the “Cars” franchise is an undeniably massive merchandising beast.
4. “Fast Five”
Universal expected big things from the fifth installment in their racing series. They did not expect this sort of block-busting performance, however, as “Fast Five” took advantage of a moribund marketplace to race to $626 million worldwide. This franchise has been very affordable for Universal at budget prices, so there was the suggestion they were taking a risk with the $121 million price tag for part five, but with two more sequels announced, they’ll be more than happy to grease Vin Diesel’s camshaft a few more times.
5. "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"
With constantly shifting release dates, re-writes and titles, everything about "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" made it look like a troubled project. Accordingly, Fox quietly dumped it at the beginning of August, hoping for the best. Even with Fox’s refusal to break the bank on this sequel/prequel/reboot at $93 million, the film was a big hit domestically and even bigger abroad, with $481 million in ticket sales. Why cookie rocket indeed.
While “Captain America: The First Avenger” was an admirable success this summer, it couldn’t match Marvel stablemate “Thor.” The God of Thunder took home $449 worldwide on a $150 million budget, a return that isn’t exactly “Iron Man” but still landed a bit above expectations. It’s no wonder the studio remains relatively quiet about “Captain America 2” while they hustle on production for a second “Thor.”
7. R-rated comedies – "Bridesmaids," "Bad Teacher," "No Strings Attached," "Friends With Benefits," "Horrible Bosses"
A series of raunchy R-rated comedies hit big in 2011, and most of them shared several common threads. Not only were they female-centric, but they were also fairly light on the studio’s checkbooks. “Bridesmaids” led the way with $288 million, the strongest global take for any Judd Apatow-produced project yet, on a budget of only $32 million. The foul-mouthed “Bad Teacher” was even cheaper, with $20 million spent, landing at a worldwide take of $216 million. Meanwhile, dueling sex comedies “No Strings Attached” and “Friends With Benefits” were pretty much neck and neck, with $147 and $149 million in box office receipts, on budgets of only $25 and $35 million, respectively. It wasn’t all for the girls, however – the male-skewing “Horrible Bosses” only cost $35 million and found success to the tune of $209 million.
8. "Super 8"
While one could argue J.J. Abrams’ alien monster movie benefited from a heavy ad campaign (one that probably eclipsed the “reported” $50 million production budget), $259 million places it amongst the year's biggest winners.
9. “Paranormal Activity 3,” And Other Affordable Horror Films
The third in the 'Paranormal' series cost $5 million, which is still a lot more than the last two, but a worldwide box office of $202 million suggests that it didn’t matter. Paramount generally goes cheap on marketing these films as well, so garnering the biggest box office of this franchise thus far has likely made series creator Oren Peli rich many times over. Meanwhile, the year’s thriftiest hit has to be FilmDistrict’s “Insidious.” The studio made the film for about $1.5 million only to see it total a massive $97 million in ticket sales. And on a smaller scale, found footage remains worth a gamble with fare like “Apollo 18,” which grossed $25 million globally on a $5 million budget.
10. “The Help”
No one expected much from this $25 million-budgeted Southern drama, which clocks in at two and a half hours. And while overseas it hasn’t exactly connected, a $202 million total and heavy-duty Oscar talk suggests the film found far more fans than anyone could have anticipated.
Other notables: Woody Allen’s $17-million-budgeted “Midnight In Paris” became his biggest worldwide hit with $145 million in tickets sold. While overseas rights were presold, the $161 million worldwide number for “Limitless“ was still fairly impressive given the $27 million cost. “Johnny English Reborn” was stillborn domestically, but grossed $159 million globally off a $45 million price tag. And with 3D, Disney spent less than $10 million converting “The Lion King," pocketing $94 million, and “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” only carried a $13 million price tag and almost hit nine digits with a $98 million total.
And Now, Some Of The Worst Expenditures Of The Year: Yes, you've read our box-office flops piece, but there's even more in our list of films that weren't profitable this year.
Martin Scorsese’s “love letter to cinema” still has to complete a global expansion, so these numbers aren’t final, but even with all the film’s award attention, “Hugo” is looking like a major financial sinkhole. There are guesstimates online as to what the budget might be, though the consensus is in the $150-$175 million realm. Nevertheless, overseas rights were presold, so the suggestion is that a good amount of money has been made. But the studio opted to give “Hugo” a smaller Thanksgiving-weekend opening before expanding, and the increased theater numbers have not resulted in corresponding box office success, with the film currently approaching $60 million globally.
The same applies to David Fincher's $100 million "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" remake. It's only been in theaters for nine days and started slow, but now it's reached $34 million domestically and still has to open in most international market, so it's far from over, but obviously it has a long way to go simply to break even. What could be the deciding factor. The foreign market. The Swedish 'Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' picture starring Noomi Rapace grossed $94 million internationally demonstrating there was a healthy global market for this brand. But they've already seen it. Do they want to pay all over again for the American-ized version? That remains to be seen.
“Machine Gun Preacher”
Hey, anyone remember Gerard Butler’s Oscar picture? Exactly. Relativity bit the bullet in picking up this $30 million-budgeted actioner-with-a-social-conscience, and then lost their stones after a wave of harsh reviews. A few poorly promoted and poorly attended arthouse showings later, and the film had barely eclipsed $1 million. Did it help that the real-life inspiration for the film, Sam Childers, had entered the country to promote the film as reports had surfaced that some of his work with children had been greatly exaggerated? Probably not.
The $20 million club
A couple of $50 million-budgeted films flopped hard this year, but the presence of Johnny Depp (“The Rum Diary”) and Nicolas Cage (“Drive Angry”) suggest they’ll at least be solid renters and cable fixtures. That probably won’t be the case for a number of $20 million-budgeted films which flopped hard in the marketplace this year. “Take Me Home Tonight” languished on the shelf for a couple of years before taking in $7 million on a $21 million budget. Screen Gems spent $25 million on the ill-advised remake of “Straw Dogs” and barely saw it crack seven figures. There was no relief for the $6 million grossing “The Beaver” (cost: $21 mil.) or $4.6 million-grossing neglected monster movie “Dylan Dog: Dead Of Night” ($20 mil.). And, because the entire enterprise reeked of Bad Idea Jeans, we’re a bit tickled, honestly, that “Atlas Shrugged Part One” played to empty theaters nationwide, grossing less than $5 million on its $20 million budget.
So what will happen in 2012? It's hard to tell but with 2011 seeing a major 4.4% decrease in ticket sales, bringing the film industry to 1995 lows, the risk/reward factor is going to be higher than ever.