The consensus is that Disney’s The Alamo is a box-office dud, raking in a paltry $9.1 million over its first weekend. But opinions differ as to how much the movie cost to make: The New York Times cited a figure of $100 million, while the Associated Press said $140 million. How do box-office analysts determine a movie’s budget?
First off, by assuming that whatever the studios say publicly is poppycock. Movie studios are notoriously crafty accountants, and they’ll often release budget figures that help them obfuscate their true losses or gains. For clunkers like The Alamo, they’ll frequently cite an unusually low budget figure, the better to conceal the bath they’re taking. And for smash hits, they’ll quote something on the high side, in order to make their profits seem slimmer (and thus provide an excuse for slighting the talent).
A studio’s estimate of a movie’s budget first shows up in the pages of Daily Variety when the project is greenlighted. The Alamo is an interesting case, as it was initially going to be helmed by Ron Howard and star Russell Crowe. But Howard demanded a production budget of around $130 million and wanted to make the movie with an R rating. Disney opted instead for The Rookie director John Lee Hancock, Dennis Quaid in place of Crowe, and a promised $75 million price tag. Of course, a studio picture that comes in under budget is filmdom’s version of the Tasmanian tiger—rumored to exist, but virtually never seen.
Disney recently quoted a final Alamo budget of around $95 million. But independent analysts contend that the studio is already in damage-control mode, spewing out budget figures that are too low. The safe bet is that Disney’s quote doesn’t include marketing, which typically adds another $25 million-$35 million for a film like The Alamo that’s designed to have broad appeal. (Films with more targeted audiences, like the pre-teen fantasy Ella Enchanted, can get away with smaller marketing budgets.) Also noteworthy is the fact that the film was originally slated for a December release but was delayed for further postproduction. The re-editing and incorporation of new effects likely cost millions more that Disney isn’t mentioning.
There are some simple guesstimation tricks that box-office analysts can use to outsmart the studios. One is to do a back-of-the-envelope calculation based on the salaries of the talent. People in Hollywood are well-aware of Jack Nicholson’s astronomical per-picture salary demands, for example, and a quick glance at the writing credits can hint at how many millions were spent on script revisions. It’s easier to peg the talent cost on a mass-market movie like The Alamo than niche fare like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Actors in blockbusters often command their fees upfront, while actors in more highbrow films often forgo their advances in order to get the project rolling—although they’ll demand a piece of the “back end,” or profits.
It used to be easier to gauge a film’s budget by tallying the number of special effects, especially obvious computer-generated images. But CGIs are now seamlessly woven into movies that aren’t necessarily special-effect bonanzas, such as last year’s Master and Commander. Rather than try and count the effects, a box-office analyst is better off cultivating studio flunkies as confidential sources—the only surefire way to know a movie’s real cost. Next question?Explainer thanks Dennis McAlpine of McAlpine Associates, Anthony Kusich of Reel Source, and David Mumpower of Box Office Prophets.