Monday, July 30, 2012

On Budget: Page vs. Screen

by Riley Redgate

Last weekend, The Dark Knight Rises made $160.9 million.

Last weekend—as in, within roughly seventy-two hours—this film made a little more than fifty cents off every human living in the United States. Let's just let that sink in for a hot second.

Has it sunk in? Excellent. Moving on:

I saw The Dark Knight Rises in IMAX. (In fact, I saw it in IMAX from the front row, which was both terrifying and extraordinarily painful, but that's beside the point.) And it hit me while I was watching how much impact the phrase "high-budget" or "low-budget" has on the movie industry. All the spectacle of Nolan's film—I can imagine the creators burning through money, mowing it down, eating it up. Money for every explosion, every costume, every special effect. Would it have been remotely the same film if they hadn't spent $280 million on the thing? One can only imagine.

It's interesting on the other end, too—the output end. Only the rarest of authors make obscene amounts of cash, as opposed to the realm of wide-release films, a realm where $13 million in three days can be described as "paltry".

When it comes to cash, no one can deny that films have a higher throughput. Massive amounts in, and (hopefully) massive amounts out. Of course, artistic vision and creativity also have tremendous influence on the film industry—but budget has a huge impact on the final product, and of course, on the existence of the product in the first place. A film that costs zero dollars to put together would be quite an interesting film indeed.

In book-land, on the other hand, the place of origin—the author's brain—isn't necessarily influenced by money. (I say "necessarily" because I'm speaking as someone who has made exactly zero dollars from writing. There's probably someone out there who makes better first drafts when they're having money thrown at them, but whatever.)

The question: Is there a "budget" of sorts when it comes to writerly ways? I believe there is, and I've drawn up a list enumerating the sources that feed into this creative budget:

1) Time. Because there are never enough hours in the day. Time is a crucial resource, and authors who are lucky enough to have an abundance of it will probably see more productivity.

2) Command of language. Because a strong vocabulary, a good sense of orthography, and sentence-to-sentence flow are gifts that keep giving.

3) Familiarity with genre. Because knowing what's become a trope, what's fresh and original, what's familiar and loved, and what's expected from the genre is a well of knowledge you can draw on with every step down the noveling path.

4) Support. Because one is the loneliest number that you'll ever do. (Two can be as bad as one; it's the loneliest number since the number one.) A network of friends, beta readers, critique partners, and cheerleaders is on the "priceless" end of the value scale.

5) Inner peace. Because seriously, have you tried to write when you're having one of those no-confidence days? Don't know about you guys, but for me, that tends to degenerate into me typing one letter repeatedly and staring at my word processor. Confidence: vital contributing factor, in my opinion.

6) Emotional investment. Because it'd be mighty tough to make yourself write about your characters if you don't care about them.

Oh, and 7) Divine inspiration. Because life isn't fair.

People may rant and rave about how different books and films are, and how one shouldn't compare them. But when it comes to budget, the two mediums run on the same principle: When you make a high-budget film (hey there, James Cameron's Avatar) you're hoping to get at least as much as you spent back, right? The more you put in, the more you'll expect out. And similarly, when you put more time into writing, or when you read books in your genre and take mental notes, or when you edit until you're personally satisfied with it, you'll get output. Maybe not monetary output, necessarily, but hey, raise your hand if you think authors are in it for the money.

... yeah, heh, that's what I thought. But what you might get as payback from a big creative budget: personal satisfaction. Satisfied readers. And hopefully—most importantly—a damn good read. Here's hoping yours is a blockbuster!

Can you think of any other contributing factors to your personal Writer's Budget (tm)?

Riley Redgate, enthusiast of all things YA, is a bookstore-and-Starbucks-dweller from North Carolina. She blogs here and speaks with considerably more brevity here.

8 comments:

Jeremy Bates said...

I agree with everything you said about the writing aspect of your post, however, I will have to disagree with you on film budgets.

Ostensibly, one could assume that the more budget a film has the more it can expect to proffer. That is quite simply a myth that has ruined many a filmmaker.

(By the way, I saw Dark Knight and loved it. I am jealous of your IMAX experience.)

The majority of films never make a profit, but rather crafty accountants cook the books. I think I read about Mel Gibson suing to get royalties from a film he made 20 years ago. All I can say is good luck to him. He's more inclined to draw the wrath of the rest of Hollyweird on him than get anything more than a meager sum, if anything.

Remember "The Blair Witch Project?" That movie was sold for $75,000 and made millions through its distributor. However, most films lose money in one way or another, and still more are never finished and the money is lost.

This is one of the reasons one sees a lot of remakes and part 2s, 3, and 9s. Investors and Hollyweird execs want to invest in a known product that has made money in the past (or still is).

As one familiar with the film business, there is considerably more than meets the eye. Rarer still are the authors who every see more than a meager sum of money for their adapted novels.

Rather than be negative, I just offer the truth. Almost every writer dreams of their novel making them millions from a movie. Unfortunately, that's about as rare as Tom Cruise performing a miracle from within the cult of Scientology.

Riley Redgate said...

That's fascinating! I knew there were occssional small-budget films that made it big (Paranormal Activity and the like), and of course I knew there were big-budget films that flopped, but I never knew *most* films end up underperforming. Very interesting. Course, I was mainly referring to the wide-release arena, the stuff I can drive down and see at my local theatre - I pretty much assumed there were a thousand failed projects drifting around the land of Hollywood... or, as you say, Hollyweird. Love it. ^_^

Thanks very much for your input! Awesome to have someone knowledgeable chip in :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Confidence is SUCH a big key! As is support. Without the amazing people I've met online I wouldn't have a clue and my writing would most certainly have stagnated!

Lynn Proctor said...

i wish there was a venue for much more small budget films---i am not usually impressed with all the special effect stuff--interesting post!

Denise Covey said...

Great post Jemi. Yeah,confidence. Some of us write a lot but just keep stuff rather than submit it, knowing that it's a cruel, tough ole world out there. I think writers are to be compared with struggling musicians whose average wage is $10,000 per year. Only the top musos make bucks. Much the same as only the top writers make more than chicken feed.

We don't do it for the money, that's for sure. We do it because we have to.

Denise

RSMellette said...

Jeremy, I've been one of those creative Hollywood Accountants, so I can tell you you're partially right.

First, re: Mel Gibson. All "above-the-line" audit their titles periodically. It's just a part of doing business. At one Studio I worked for, there were so many audits lined up that the studio, working with a good sized staff, takes 5 years to respond to each filing. So no big deal there.

Do most movies loose money? Depends on how you keep score. Theatrically? Yes, absolutely. Theatrical releases are really just advertising for the DVD and now download. Big budget movies have a harder time making a profit because they cost so much money to make.

I ran the numbers once for all movies that reported income, with a budget of between 1 and 10 million dollars, over a six year period, and learned that nearly 50% of them were profitable, and the average return was 71%. All of that was after estimated costs.

So, if a filmmaker can keep the budget under $10 million, and get the film to market, their high risk investment has a good chance of making an insanely high return.

Jean Oram said...

Must. Have. Computer.

Seriously, time is the one I keep coming up against. And it is putting in the time that pays off. Ooh.. I think I might feel my August FTWA post coming on!!!!

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