by Andy Dudas-
What is a successful piece of Art? Is it something renowned and adored by fans? Is it something garnering critical acclaim? Or is it just something making the creator a crap ton of money?
It can be any or all of these things. Using motion pictures as the example by which we will be measuring this question lets start with The Shawshank Redemption. Pulling a 91% from Rotten Tomatoes this film is liked my many, many people. But at the box office it just broke even. As the movie continues to grow more and more beloved with age, we are left to wonder how did it not make more money?
Waterworld, a film widely panned(I liked it) was a domestic failure at the box office. Post apocalyptic movies are tough for people. There has been some money made in this genre but in the end I am always thinking we don’t want to be reminded of what our future may hold if it involves diesel fuel guzzling lunatics running roughshod over law and order just to find the next gas station on the way to whatever Hell on Earth we have doomed ourselves. Kevin Costner had earned enough Hollywood cred from Dances with Wolves(yes I liked that one too!), JFK, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to get this Esther Williams/Mad Max crossover to the screen. In the end, I would suspect most people involved would say it wasn’t worth the paltry profits it produced internationally.
But then you have modern films with gigantic budgets well over $150 million. $150 million is standard these days and they are expected to horn in on $1 billion with steady regularity. Avatar, Star Wars VII, and Marvel’s The Avengers to name just three, all did this but with budgets that are way on one end of the scale. Avatar(which I found to be very vanilla), the movie at the top of the all time box office list had profits in the neighborhood nearly 12 times what it cost to produce. The Force Awakens brought in 8 1/2 times its production budget while Marvel’s The Avengers raked in almost 7 times the amount of money it cost.
But when it comes to success, at least in terms of money…Napoleon Dynamite was a film that only cost $400k to bring to the screen but made that back 115 times over. 115 times! As impressive as that is, Paranormal Activity managed to break the bank and logic and everything I bet most Hollywood experts thought was the truth about how films are made and the money they bring in. With a budget of just $15,000 they brought in nearly $200 million! 12,890 times the original budget. Let’s apply that number to Avatar. James Cameron spent $237 million and the box office was $2.8 billion. Using his $237 million and Paranormal Activity’s 12,890, Avatar would have made over $3,000,000,000,000! That’s 12 zeroes…THREE TRILLION DOLLARS!
When talking about Avatar we are obliged to mention Gone With the Wind. A nice metric of ‘adjusted for inflation’ brings the 1939 classic to the top of the list a whopping 14 spots in front of Avatar, with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Ten Commandments, and 101 Dalmatians among those in between. To be fair, these three films have been rereleased a total of 15 times and GWTW 15 more in its own right…so is it an accurate comparison when Avatar has been released just once…perhaps not.
But box office profit margins cannot be the only way in which we gauge the success of these or any films. In the end, all that’s important is: did you like it? Eye of the beholder and all that jazz. Little known independent films versus gargantuan studio mega monsters seems to be a fight that was over before it started. For as much as I maintain Jurassic Park(a box office smash making 16 times its budget) is my all time favorite movie, there is a place in my heart for a movie even like Wild Wild West(widely recognized as a horrible film and its profits support that not even doubling its budget at the box office). Both huge in terms of promotion and production but miles apart in terms of how there were received.
Was Jurassic Park expected to be a success? Certainly, but then again enough people thought Wild Wild West might be too. How about Avatar? You don’t convince that many people to front that much money on a film to just break even. When Cameron produced Titanic, he had to get two movie studios to get on board to spread the cost and burden. In the end of course, Cameron was right both times.
But when the project is small and financial success an uncertainty…a couple thousand dollars from a benefactor of modest means is worth much more to them than the tens of millions of dollars dropped rather casually on a film coming out of a mainstream juggernaut. Which is why some, not every, but some times we get a film like Waterworld and people hate it. But at the other end of the budget spectrum, we also are given Don’t Think Twice(Rotten Tomatoes 98%). A little film with a limited release that just knocks your socks off. Raking in a billion dollars was never this film’s destiny. Writer/director Mike Birbiglia with a budget of just $3 million, whose profits, dollar earned vs dollar spent, actually outpaced those of Wild Wild West and as of this writing is on par with Blade Runner 2049‘s budget/box office numbers. Take that, replicants!!!
So who is expected to succeed and to whom is failure doomed? Nobody knows. Which is why in the end you should just judge these things for yourself. For every Heaven’s Gate there is another Captain America waiting to break the bank. For every Rocky lurking in the shadows waiting to surprise the world, there is another John Carter waiting to let us all down. Yet another film I liked better than Avatar, but what do I know? I’m the guy who liked Waterworld and cried watching Bring It On.
Andy Dudas 11/20/2017
Andy Dudas has interests varying from painting and singing, to photography and prop making. Pretty much anything that has a creative element. Amateur status in all endeavors, he finds art everywhere he looks. Always seeking his next inspiration.