When it comes to film budgets, mum’s the word

WHILE THE STUDIOS these days relish the extensive press coverage of their record holiday film grosses, they’re increasingly irked by another aspect of the reporting. As MCA president Sid Sheinberg puts it: “Gossip about what films cost is becoming increasingly destructive. It’s even spreading to critics, who tend to review the budgets, not the pictures.”

It’s not surprising that MCA has been singularly aggressive in shooting down trade gossip that Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” may end up costing over $ 80 million. MCA spokesmen have been planting stories with key columnists that the film, far from being a runaway, came in under budget at about $ 56 million. And, no, MCA is not laying off some of the cost on dinosaur rides at theme parks , as some skeptics suspect.

Should the press write about budgets at all? “No, it’s been done to death,” argues Rob Friedman, president of advertising and publicity at Warner Bros. It’s always news if a picture is out of control, he concedes, but to focus obsessively on costs and superstar salaries, as the media have done, is counterproductive.

Besides, cost alone does not determine the profitability of movie projects, as the unsuspecting public suspects. A studio could end up making more money from an expensive film that has no major gross participants than from a more economical project that had to dole out heavy profit participations to its directors and stars, or has even assigned a territory to a co-financing entity.

Given this mind-set, the studios more and more are declining to divulge the negative costs of their product. “It just doesn’t serve us,” says Sid Ganis, president of marketing and distribution at Columbia Pictures. “And I don’t think it serves the consumer either.” The typical filmgoer, Ganis observes, can’t distinguish between the production values on a well-crafted, modestly budgeted film like “Driving Miss Daisy” versus a megapic like “Batman,” so why should the studios do anything to draw attention?

THE INFORMATION VOID has left the press in a position of foraging for whatever facts it can elicit from off-the-record sources. Executives of rival studios often enjoy discussing the budget problems of competitors. Top agents are open to “trading” information. Occasionally a producer or director leaves a project because of disagreements over budget–witness Joel Silver departing “Beverly Hills Cop III” ostensibly because he felt the film could not be brought in for the $ 55 million Paramount has allotted.

Often our educated guesses about cost are quite accurate. Occasionally, as with “Jurassic Park,” there are misfires. Variety and Daily Variety take their mistakes very seriously, because we feel we have a special obligation to be responsible with our numbers. We also realize that our errors are likely to find their way into other media. Witness the several papers (including the august Economist) that repeated Variety‘s published estimates that “Aladdin” came in at $ 45 million. In fact, this was a typo; the correct figure was $ 25 million.

Sure, Variety and Daily Variety could opt simply to go along with the wishes of the studios and not run any cost estimates, but in doing so we would be letting down an important constituency. There is a legitimate need among the financial people scrutinizing the entertainment industry to keep track of product costs.

“I don’t need to know whether ‘Sister Act’ cost Disney $ 20 million or $ 22 million,” says David Londoner, the sage managing director at Wertheim Schroder. “I try to look at all the components of a company — TV, films, the library, etc. But at the same time it’s vital to be alerted to a situation where a film that’s budgeted at $ 40 million suddenly becomes a $ 65 million project because this impacts on all the other aspects of the equation.”

OF COURSE, IT’S DATA about the over-budget projects that the studios are most paranoid about disclosing. Not so many years ago, when a picture went into outer space it was treated as a fact of life. Today a runaway film can ruin careers and undermine a studio regime.

That is, unless the studio planned it that way, as in the case of a project called “The Volunteers.” This was a film that was designed from inception to soar way over budget. Indeed its director, producer and principal cast were hand-picked because they were unstable, neurotic and undependable — that is, they could be depended on to engage in excess.

Why would any studio embark upon such a project?

“The Volunteers,” in fact, is not a real movie; it exists only within the pages of a clever new novel called “A Cast of Thousands” written by Steve Shagan , a veteran screenwriter and novelist. Shagan postulates a unique situation in which a studio actually is in desperate need of a runaway film to ensure its survival. And the studio chiefs execute their bizarre plan with superb skill and hilarious results.

Indeed, for those studio apparatchiks who labor day-to-day with the harsh realities of filmmaking, reading “A Cast of Thousands” could be valuable therapy. It’s certainly a lot more fun than telling the press it can’t have access to data that it will somehow obtain anyway.

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