Monday, January 30, 2012

The Devil's Candy -- movie bombs and college budgets

The recent discussion of higher education costs got me thinking about other spiraling budgets and about one of my favorite case studies on the subject, Julie Salamon's excellent, The Devil's Candy, an account of the making of the movie adaptation of Bonfire of the Vanities.

Salamon, already a well established journalist, was given almost unprecedented access to the production. I say 'almost' because there is one other similar book, Picture, by Lillian Ross of the New Yorker, which describes John Huston's filming of Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage. Huston's film has grown in critical stature over the years, but it was a notorious commercial flop, which should, perhaps, have been a warning to Brian DePalma and the other people behind Bonfire.

Of course, Hollywood is a world of its own, but there are some general lessons in The Devil's Candy. One is that enterprises have a right size and if you try to scale past that size, things can go very wrong. As DePalma (who deserves serious points for forthrightness) put it:
"The initial concept of it was incorrect. If you're going to do The Bonfire of the Vanities, you would have to make it a lot darker and more cynical, but because it was such an expensive movie we tried to humanize the Sherman McCoy character – a very unlikeable character, much like the character in The Magnificent Ambersons. We could have done that if we'd been making a low-budget movie, but this was a studio movie with Tom Hanks in it. We made a couple of choices that in retrospect were wrong. I think John Lithgow would have been a better choice for Sherman McCoy, because he would have got the blue-blood arrogance of the character."
Another lesson is that, viewed individually, each of the disastrous decisions seemed completely reasonable. There's something almost Escher-like about the process: each decision seems to be a move up toward a better and more profitable film but the downward momentum simply accelerates, ending with a critically reviled movie that lost tens of millions of dollars. I suspect that survivors of similar fiascos in other fields would tell much the same story.

Finally there's the way that the failure to control costs in one area limits the ability (or willingness) to control it in other areas. You might that excessive spending on a cast would encourage producers to look for ways to spend less on something like catering, but the opposite often seems to happen when you have this kind of budget spiral. It's a delusional cousin of dynamic scoring: people internalize the idea that anything that might directly or indirectly improve box office performance will pay for itself, no matter how expensive it may be. Pretty soon you're bleeding money everywhere.

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