News hit the interwebs recently detailing the latest Sony hack reveal: the upcoming James Bond adventure SPECTRE is not only over budget, but could possibly become the most expensive film ever made. Now, before you get on a “oh no, not another James Bond article written by Eric Cohen” (because, you know, there’s no such thing as too much James Bond speculation by yours truly), the budget of Bond 24 and the potential spoilers revealed from that hack are not the focus of this post. This morning, Universal Pictures announced that 2014 has been the most profitable year in its entire history. Setting what might be hyperbole aside, this is still something interesting to note as a majority of the studio’s output this year have been moderately budgeted pictures.

That’s not to say Universal’s films have been good. DRACULA UNTOLD might have been the nearest thing to a tent pole release on their part and it was bloody awful. But it cost them only $70 million to produce and it made $212 million. That’s a hefty profit right there. And while not all of their titles achieved such a windfall, the lesser performers broke even at worst. But that still isn’t even the most fascinating aspect. That $70 million budget for DRACULA was Universal’s most expensive movie of the year. The rest just hit the $50 mil price tag or less. So I find it kind of amusing and terribly ironic that within the span of 24 hours we not only learn that the latest entry in a tent pole franchise will have the kind of budget that could fund the economy of two small countries, but that a major studio has shown to profit off of an output of films whose collective budgets could’ve funded only one.

Okay, that last sentence might be an exaggeration of sorts but you get my drift. I sense all you cineastes may want to respond with “Yay! This means Hollywood will get with the program and stop wasting their money on larger budgeted blockbusters! This will make room for smaller, more independently minded films!” But before you do, just take a look at some of Universal’s releases during 2014:

ENDLESS LOVE (a remake)
NON-STOP (Liam Neeson kicking ass)
A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (Liam Neeson kicking ass redux)
LUCY (Scarlett Johansson kicking ass)
NEIGHBORS (Seth Rogan comedy)
RIDE ALONG (Kevin Hart comedy)
A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST (Seth McFarlane comedy)
THE PURGE: ANARCHY (violent, horror sequel. Not a comedy)
OUIJA (horror. Not a sequel)
AS ABOVE/SO BELOW (Found footage horror. Also not a sequel)
DUMB AND DUMBER TO (another sequel. But not horror)
GET ON UP (James Brown bio flick)
DRACULA UNTOLD

While all of these movies made their money back and then some, they were still made with a mainstream audience in mind. Notice how there aren’t any art house darlings there or the kind of quirky, low budget titles you would associate with a distributor like Drafthouse Films. So the real lesson learned is that you don’t have to spend over $70 million nor rely on a 3D option to get your audience into the seats of the local cinema. Therefore, you can apply this business model to the kind of film making usually associated with larger budgets than that.

Yes, the irony hasn’t escaped me over how Universal intends to unleash its bid for tent pole building with their reboot of THE MUMMY in 2016, a fact that smacks of the similar need for blockbuster creation that got Hollywood into this big budget mindset in the first place. But it is feasible that their “Monster Mash” series will each be set at reasonable enough rates. Where collectively their entire budget may be less or just hit the crazy, overly inflated budget of Sony’s SPECTRE. Yet, outside of that we also have JURASSIC WORLD and FAST AND FURIOUS 7 to contend with, which are the closest thing Universal’s got to highly anticipated, blockbuster-like product within this year and the next.

Not bad for a studio that does not have a superhero or super spy franchise under its belt. And with the possible exception of GET ON UP, there isn’t even the kind of “serious” fodder that could piggy back off of the Oscar buzz surrounding the fall and winter months. However, getting back to my point on quality vs. quantity, it’s not like Universal has put out anything that falls outside of the mainstream radar, either. Which brings to mind the Roger Corman “epics” of the 1960s, 70s and early 80s. A film like JAWS was just a big budget, major studio release version of the kind of monster flicks Corman was churning out at a mere tenth of the price. Heck, Asylum Studios does this once a month with their ready-made, SyFy channel library. While the term “quality” is subjective in terms of how we approach film appreciation, the latest news from Universal Pictures seems to promise more of the same but at a lower budget. You can define “blockbuster” however you want. But mainstream film making is still mainstream film making, backed with the intent of creating a blockbuster because of that. And if you can achieve this at less than $40 million while reaping considerable takes upon that movie’s release then that, my friends, is the very definition of a blockbuster in a nutshell.

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