True lies: Pix numbers crunch only a hunch

SO WHAT DID “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2” really cost? Newsweek says the pricetag on the Tom Cruise blockbuster was $90 million. A review in Variety put it at $150 million. Other publications floated numbers in between.

In point of fact, none of us has the remotest idea what Paramount spent on its film, nor for any of its films — which won’t discourage anyone from passing off guesses under the guise of “inside information.”

Indeed, each week the Los Angeles Times publishes a summary of “money-makers,” “toss-ups” and “losers,” which projects not only costs but also ultimate bottom line results.

But why? Since none of us knows the numbers, why do we publish them? Why are they even relevant?

“In what other business does the consumer get the benefit of virtually unlimited spending without having to foot the bill?” asks Joe Roth, who was the production chief at 20th Century Fox and Disney before starting his new company.

The price of a ticket for “Dinosaur,” which may or may not have cost $200 million, is no higher than for a cheapie like “Road Trip,” Roth points out, adding: “If I could pay the same amount for a Mercedes as for a Hyundai, I’d be delighted. In fact, I wouldn’t ask how much more the Mercedes cost to make.”

Two years ago, Roth presided over the making of “Armageddon,” which may have cost either $135 million or $175 million depending on (a) whom you believed or (b) whether or not you added everyone’s overhead to the basic negative cost.

Indeed, the “Armageddon” example points up another primary problem with quoting costs: Namely, there are lots of ways of figuring them.

On “Dinosaur,” how do you allocate the salaries of all those animators who were on staff at Disney, not to mention the lavish computer hardware and software?

On “Titanic,” how do you allocate the cost of building that big tank and related facilities in Mexico?

In the same vein, some of the top stars today negotiate guaranteed deferments on top of their basic salaries and gross participations. If Warner Bros. guaranteed Mel Gibson a $15 million deferment for meandering through “Lethal Weapon IV,” is that number added to the cost of the film?

NOT SURPRISINGLY, NO ONE FEELS impelled to answer these questions. I asked four studio chiefs last week how they handled questions about cost, and here’s what they answered: Two said “I lie,” two others said, “I tell them, ‘It’s none of your business.’ ”

Paramount’s official line is that “Mission: Impossible 2” cost $90 million, which no one in the press believes. Warner Bros. says “Perfect Storm” cost somewhere between $120 million and $150 million, but is vague about whether this includes guaranteed deferments. Disney says the $200 million estimate on “Dinosaurs” is “stupid” but won’t elucidate.

I have great respect for the talents of Richard Natale, the reporter who compiles the chart for the Los Angeles Times. He conscientiously sifts through all these estimates and tries to find a consensus number. He rejects Paramount’s $90 million figure on the reasonable logic that the Tom Cruise film went roughly eight months over schedule, but lowballs his cost estimate at $100 million (he’s probably $15 million off). He does the most responsible job possible on what is arguably a mission impossible.

“The Los Angeles Times’ chart is consistently wrong,” insists the head of one major company, who declines to be identified. “It’s wrong on cost. Its basic formula for computing ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ is incorrect. It’s given my studio ‘winners’ that were really ‘losers’ and vice versa.”

Projecting grosses on the opening weekend, to be sure, can be as dicey as estimating costs. A year ago the Times projected “Phantom Menace’s” ultimate U.S. gross at $350 million (it did $431 million) and predicted that “The Matrix” would hit $160 million (it got to $171 million).

Whatever the validity of the numbers, there’s a more important question to consider: Why bother? The fixation on cost often colors a review and affects the public’s perception of a film.

Going way back to “Cleopatra,” publicity about so-called runaway costs have negatively impacted movies.

“Waterworld” became damaged goods because of this phenomenon. The same for “Godzilla.” Every critic was ready to kill “Titanic” because of its budgetary excesses, but they quickly retreated when they realized that the film worked superbly.

I WOULD ARGUE THAT IT’S TIME to face up to a series of realities:

  • Talent costs and exotic special effects will continue to propel upward the cost of “event” movies.

  • No one can figure out how to put films on an assembly line, hence there will continue to be overruns and runaway budgets.

  • Since the studios are owned by multinational corporations that issue arcane earnings statements, there is no way anyone can compute the cost of individual movies from data issued to the public.

  • Studio “suits,” a self-protective lot, have no intention of volunteering valid information reports on the cost of major projects.

Faced with these realities, we in the press would do well to abandon the entire exercise and focus instead on the final results. As Roth suggests, there’s nothing wrong with acquiring a Mercedes at Hyundai prices if the damn thing performs well.

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