How Much Do Movies Really Cost?
A while back I wrote about how much it costs Hollywood to make a movie, using Avatar as a (particularly depressing) example. Avatar seems to have cost about $237 million, of which $150 million went to promotion.
Avatar, of course, wasn't just "any old movie" - even by Hollywood standards. It was made by James Cameron, who has a history of making movies that rake in mountains of cash once they're released; Avatar seems to have made North of $2.5 BILLION dollars. It was also made in 3D (ick) using bleeding-edge graphics techniques on a set which was designed from the ground up to make the movie. Avatar won three Oscars, which is evidence that the Oscar should no longer be considered an honor worth having.
You can make a much better movie than Avatar for a lot less money; The Hurt Locker, directed by Cameron's ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, was a better movie than Avatar even by Hollywood's standards - it won 6 Oscars the same year Avatar won its 3. The Hurt Locker cost less than $20 million to make, and it seems to have earned about $20 million.
You can get production costs down far below $20 million, but total costs are still high if you want a movie released in theaters. The Blair Witch Project cost between $20,000 and $750,000 to make, depending on who you believe and how you define expenses - but it cost $25 million to print, distribute, and advertise.
And of course, Robert Rodriguez famously shot El Mariachi for $7,000 - but again, the total costs of the movie the audience actually saw were much greater. Columbia paid at least another million, and probably more, to print the film, advertise it, and distribute it.
Rodriguez made El Mariachi on 16mm film. Film is expensive, and so is the equipment you need to use to shoot a movie on film. Today you can shoot a movie digitally for even less than Rodriguez spent on El Mariachi. I've done it.
The trick is to do everything yourself (or with a few friends), using consumer equipment, and avoid all the things that make Hollywood films expensive.
I made the movie at the head of this post for last year's Austin 48-Hour Film Project. I wrote the script myself, did all the filming, lighting, editing, and music myself on equipment I already owned, and used friends & family (me, my father, and my former boss) for actors.
Even if I'd had to buy all the equipment new, it would only have cost about $2,000. Here's the complete equipment list:
$1199 13" MacBook Pro
$399 Panasonic DMC-LX3
$0 Garage Band
$199 8GB iPod Touch
$9.99 BeatMaker app
$14.99 MusicStudio app
$6.99 ThumbJam app
$1.99 Bebot app
$3.99 Bloom app
$0.99 Euphonics app
$1.99 Bowls app
$0.99 Church Organ app
The total comes to $2,220.92.
But $1,598 of that is the laptop and a consumer digicam capable of HD video - and there's a good chance you already have one or both of those.
The most important items - David Mamet's book "On Directing Film", the tripod, and the lights - cost only $319.
By the way, you will be tempted to cheap out on the tripod.
DO NOT CHEAP OUT ON THE TRIPOD.
You want a good solid one with a smooth pan action, a quick-release plate, and a leveling bubble.
The moral of this story is that if you have a decent computer and digital camera, you can make a pretty good movie yourself for free. Next time we'll talk about whether you can get anybody to watch it, and whether you can make money from it.