Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Twelve years ago at the blog -- The Devil's Candy with added Kael

We were talking a lot about education costs at the time so the analogy of cost spirals was a bit more obvious then than it is now. 

A few years after posting this, I came across this passage from a Pauline Kael essay spelled out that what went wrong with Bonfire a decade before the film was made.

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.




From Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers

If a big star and a big director show interest in a project, the executives will go along for a $14,000,000 or $15,000,000 budget even if, by the nature of the material, the picture should be small. And so what might have been a charming light entertainment that millions of people all over the world would enjoy is inflated, rewritten, to enlarge the star’s part, and overscaled. It makes money in advance and sends people out of theatres complaining and depressed. Often, when people leave theatres they’re bewildered by the anxious nervous construction of the film—by the feeling it gives them of having been pieced together out of parts that don’t fit. Moves have gone to hell and amateurism. A third of the pictures being made by Hollywood this year are in the hands of first-time directors, who will receive almost no guidance or help. They’re thrown right into a pressure-cooker situation, where any delay is costly. They may have come out of sitcoms, and their dialogue will sound forced, as if it were all recorded in a large, empty cave; they may have come out of nowhere and have never worked with actors before. Even if a director is highly experienced, he probably has certain characteristic weaknesses, such as a tendency to lose track of the story, or an ineptness with women characters; he’s going to need watching. But who knows that, or cares enough to try to protect the picture? The executives may have hired the director after “looking at his work”—that is, running off every other reel of one of his films. They are busy people. Network executives who are offered a completed movie commonly save time by looking at a fifteen-minute selection from it—a précis of its highlights—which has been specially prepared for them. God forbid that they should have to sit through the whole thing.


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