Dear Hollywood: Let's Brainstorm Some Ways to Save Money

Recently, a few thought provoking articles addressed at-length the generally sad state of affairs at major film studios. To be fair, neither Mark Harris or Drew McWeeny put the blame squarely on the studios -- noting that audience turnout and demand is as much of a factor as anything -- but at the same time, there's one oft-repeated point that still resonates in both pieces: Most major studios simply cannot afford to take risks on original material. All right, then, Hollywood: let's talk about saving money.

I'll acknowledge up front that I do not have a business degree, and that none of the brainstorming suggestions below are fail-safe. But that's show business! Even films that seem like guaranteed blockbusters sometimes crash and burn, and generally, simply maintaining the status quo in a constantly changing industry is the surest way to expedite demise. So, for all studio execs who are genuinely interested in setting aside some extra money for riskier projects, I humbly suggest the following budget-cutting ideas. As always, feel free to chime in with your own.

Cut the salaries of major stars

Just as movie stars no longer guarantee huge openings (see: Knight and Day, The A-Team), other recent success stories prove that you don't need a huge star to open a film (see: Avatar, Paranormal Activity, How to Train Your Dragon). Admittedly, we are mostly out of the era of $20 million dollar up-front paychecks (though not all of the way), but I think it's now safe to start moving a little faster in this direction. Even a 10% cut on the highest salaries would start to add up. Of course, how you'd actually get movie stars to accept this is another matter entirely.

Cap the budget of non-tentpole genre films

Sure, I'd prefer that maybe we cap the budget on the absurdly expensive tent pole films, but execs have ignored this plea over and over. That said, a quick look at box-office figures suggests that studios are also overspending on throwaway genre-fare. I get that spending 30+ million on films like Season of the Witch ($40 million) and Repo Men ($32 million) might seem like a relatively safe gamble before seeing the finished film. But seriously, why even take that risk?

I don't think the extra money that went into these films honestly made their box-office chances any better than they would have been if the producers and filmmakers had used a third of the budgets more resourcefully. So I propose that studio heads go totally Roger Corman on these types of mid-budget genre films. The advantage is two-fold: First, even if the films turn out terrible, there's a better chance of recouping or breaking even because of the built-in audience for genre. Second, when younger filmmakers are faced with the prospect of using creativity instead of money to solve problems, we might actually start getting genre films as good as Corman in his golden age. Also, consider a somewhat more moderate cap on comedies like Grown Ups, even if they will be hits. I am pretty sure Grown Ups did not need to cost $80 million.

Stay ahead of the curve on marketing and don't be afraid to experiment

Recently, Hollywood has sort of started to get the hang of viral marketing and harnessing social media, but as usual, they were a bit behind the curve. It might take a little bit more of an upfront investment and some new blood, but please, stay on top of this. The internet and the way people gather and process information are both constantly changing, and at any given moment there are dozens of untapped, cost-effective marketing tactics waiting to be discovered. The more that these are utilized, the less studios will have to spend on print and TV advertising. On a related note: Consider capping the budget on movies like Killers, where the film's entire chance of success literally depends on spending millions on print and TV ads.

Know when to abort

Every year or two there's news about some film that goes absurdly over-budget, something like Evan Almighty that's destined to disappoint before it even opens. It's understandable, since if a studio has already put a huge amount of money into a project, it's embarrassing to just flush it all; and it's human nature to just throw in more and hope that it will turn out okay. But seriously, before sinking another $50 million into the budget plus God-knows-what into desperate marketing and PR, consider just cutting your losses early.

Another studio is making a similar project? Shut it down

I'm talking about the years where we get Dante's Peak and Volcano, Deep Impact and Armageddon and so on. I realize this sort of thing often does get nipped in the bud, and that sometimes both movies turn out to be profitable. All the same, making a movie is enough of a risk as it is. Can't one smart studio realize that the public probably does not need two volcano movies and just direct the remaining funds into something original? The latest culprits are the two competing hitman projects about "The Iceman." Also: Consider combining silly high-concept projects into one movie, just because that would be kinda awesome.


  • CiscoMan says:

    Re: the Internet and experimentation, how about: Don't Follow the Music Industry's Lead. Invest in a new business model before the old one rots away. Not that I want movie theaters to go away, but Internet viewership (download and/or streaming) isn't going to go away, either. A web series will eventually become a hit on par with TV or a film. That 10% off of Tom Cruise's salary could probably fund several web experiments.

  • stolidog says:

    Ciscoman, I was going to say the same thing.
    The giant multiplexes at the mall are going to fail soon. Studios need to deal directly with Cable/Netflix etc. Show blockbusters directly through these venues, and charge more. Bring out the directors cuts at the same time and charge even more.
    Single or Double screen movie houses are the perfect venue for small budget, indie or foreign films...charge less.
    get ahead of the curve and bring 3-d to home viewing.
    tear down the 15 screen monsters at the malls.

  • HwoodHills says:

    I think another publication (THR maybe?) recently ran an opinion piece suggesting cut-backs on salary fees to stars in exchange for points on the back-end in order to guarantee their interest in promotion.
    This is a great idea but with studio books being so crooked (sorry, I meant: "Often times hard to understand due to the very complicated way of keeping records in a multi-billion dollar industry") it'd have to be first dollar gross and that can be just as tricky.
    The thing is, studios have become Corporate giants owned by bigger Corporate giants who no longer care about anything original.
    Everything today seems to come from either a book, a song or a pre-existing element that showed some kind of "high-awareness" number in either an on-line poll or a mall questionnaire.
    Until a small studio flick comes out and explodes again (a-la MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING) the emphasis is going to be placed on the "familiar." (And, truth be told, if Hanks hadn't been behind MBFGW who knows if it ever would've gotten made.)
    It's a tricky time in Hollywood.

  • Making short films is usually incredibly expensive too, but thats in the thousands, not millions. Once camera costs, accommodation, basic crew costs are paid for, the 99% cost always comes down to the top three crew (director, producer, someone else) and the 'stars'.
    If supply/ demand actually worked and results were guaranteed (audience numbers) then it would not matter what people were paid, jealously aside. But most 'common people' wonder how stars and star athletes can be paid a lifetime of the average joe's salary, in one movie or one season.
    Like CEO salaries, sport stars etc, actors should only be paid on the success of the film. Isnt that how it mostly works for the rest of the world. Low pay until you achieve something great, then maybe a 5% raise for next year?
    Somehow, the studios have to get into agreement on this, if they want to survive the internet era. Its not sales, its the cost of production that is killing them. Don't increase ticket prices, bring salaries back toward earth just a little bit, then maybe actors will garner more respect, from the average joe.

  • Marissa Evans says:

    Five words: Tell it to James Cameron!

  • lynn says:

    Cut the price of making the movies and then cut the price at the theaters and maybe you could bring families back to the movies again. When a family of four has to pay 60 or more dollars to go to a movie (without snacks) these days is it a wonder that they wait for it on video. I remember taking my kids to see movies two, maybe three times. The studios are lucky if they take them once. And movies really should be seen in a theater. Look at "The King's Speech," it didn't cost all that much and it is making a very nice profit. It also helps if the movie is good. In addition, they need to stop bloating the sequels. The original Die Hard was a compact sleek movie. By the time we got to 4 there were so many extraneous crashes and chases (which cost a bundle of money) the movie was a mess.

  • Rob says:

    Well, they managed to do District 9 for only $35 million so it can be done. And as good as Depp and Denzal Washington are, the both command minimum $20 million per film. Thats just total bullshit. Seriously.