(Lainey: this is a question that came in recently from a reader called Issie. Sarah’s response is below.)
I was on Box Office Mojo today, looking at the numbers for The Hunger Games. They've passed 1/2 billion worldwide and it looks like it'll be a cakewalk to 400M domestic. In comparison, John Carter has made about 1/2 that in worldwide grosses and didn't crack 100M domestic. JC got 250M in budget and THG only 78M. Even if they majorly underestimated how well THG would end up doing, they had to have guessed it would make at least half of its' domestic take so far which would have justified 100M to make the movie. I really liked THG, but I feel like it could have been so much more with better effects. Conversely, how does a movie like JC get a budget like that based on what they brought to the table?
So how does a disparity like that occur?
Well, Carter wasn’t supposed to cost $250 million, but it was always going to run expensive because it required a helluva lot more computer effects than The Hunger Games did. It just kind of spiraled out of control, with reshoots and a long post-production period driving the spending. But even allowing for the out of control nature of John Carter, it comes down to a fundamentally different approach to putting together a film. A studio like Lionsgate lives in the middle. Their goal is to fund projects with mid-range budgets; they’re rarely going to spend $70 million+ on a movie. They just don’t have the cash to deal in big budgets like Disney does, so they start from a position of “we’re making this movie and we only have X to do it”.
Meanwhile, Disney, co-producing with Pixar, has a near-unlimited reserve from which to create a budget. Their position is one of “we’re making this so here’s the checkbook”. Disney chairman Rich Ross was ousted over the John Carter debacle—they’re writing down a loss estimated from $150-200 million—but it’s worth noting that 2010’s Prince of Persia also got completely out of hand with a $200 million budget against $90 million domestic, ditto for Mars Needs Moms ($150 million against $21 million). This was a mistake Disney made THREE TIMES before acting to correct it. One mistake of that scale would sink Lionsgate.
To me, it’s not how much you spend that counts, but how you spend it. I refer you to Joss Whedon’s Serenity, a film with elaborate sets and a lot of CGI that was made for $40 million. AND IT LOOKS GREAT. Serenity is the enduring proof that no one needs $100 million to make a movie. They just want $100 million. I, too, was let down by the SFX in The Hunger Games but I really don’t think more money is the solution. That’s why, when it came out that Gary Ross was leaving the franchise, I was tossing out names like Guillermo del Toro as a possible replacement—he made the incredibly lavish Pan’s Labyrinth for less than $20 million! And it’s a concern I have for Catching Fire’s director, Francis Lawrence, because I don’t think he has any more capacity than Ross to get truly creative and figure out how to make a visually lush film that will require some complicated SFX on a less-than-blockbuster budget. No doubt Lionsgate will commit more money to Catching Fire, but the question isn’t will it be enough but whether or not Lawrence can make it be enough.