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Why Do Hollywood Movies Cost so Much to Make?

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By Nathan B. Lawrence, Lawrence University 

Film is a big business. According to the Motion Picture Association of America’s Annual Report, movies rake in tens of billions of dollars at the box office every year, and this number is steadily increasing—but as they say, it takes money to make money, and Hollywood is certainly spending its fair share. Some of 2013's biggest movies had massive budgets: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire supposedly had a budget of more than $130 million, while Warner Brothers’ latest superhero epic, Man of Steel, had a price tag of $225 million.

Typically, the details of budget information are confidential, but there are a few examples floating around. This leaked budget for M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 thriller The Village can provide a lot of interesting insight. Though its budget of around $70 million is smaller than a big summer blockbuster, the principles remain the same.

It's no surprise that lots of the cost of filming a big budget movie comes from the people in charge of making it. In the case of The Village, this was the case for its writer/director, who was paid more than $10 million for his services. However, these large fees are often attached to just about anyone who has significant creative influence over the film. For example, Robert Downey, Jr. was purportedly paid almost $50 million for his work on The Avengers.

Even for lesser-known actors, pay can only go so low. Guild rules mandate that actors be paid at least $859 per day. On top of this pay, the actors also need “fringes,” money paid in accordance with Screen Actors Guild instructions to provide for benefits and pensions, among other things. Also included are the other crew members who are needed to make production and post-production go smoothly and turn in a high quality finished product. Over a 30-day or longer shoot, paying the cast and crew alone can add up quickly. The number of people on a crew can be exceptionally high—but as things get more and more complicated, with the addition of effects like explosives or gunfire, every single person on that crew becomes necessary to make sure things run smoothly and efficiently. As it turns out, paying a very large crew to run on time tends to be much cheaper than paying a slightly smaller crew and having to worry about paying overtime.

The equipment and supplies needed to film the movie are very expensive, too. Standard 35mm color motion picture film runs about $45 per minute and a typical movie shoots about 15 times the amount of footage that winds up on screen, so a standard 120 minute movie could spend upwards of $80,000 on film stock alone—not to mention processing or the equipment to use it, which is usually rented for tens of thousands of dollars per week.

Set design and effects also take lots of money, especially in blockbuster action films. Blowing things up doesn’t come cheap; between safety regulations and the raw material itself, these costs can easily add up to millions. Even the stunts for The Village, a relatively tame film, wound up costing around $3.9 million. Visual effects add even more to these numbers; depending on the scale of a production, hundreds of VFX artists can spend months working on a film.

Marketing for films rounds out these numbers very nicely, typically adding an additional 50 percent to a film’s budget. 

The MPAA says that the film industry in the United States helps to contribute more than $100 billion in wages to the economy each year, and when you start to add these numbers up, it’s easy to see how that could be possible. Making a Hollywood blockbuster requires an enormous range of equipment and crew, and by the time it’s done, everybody has contributed a little piece to something much, much larger.

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Big Questions
What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
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Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Do Morticians Do With the Blood They Take Out of Dead Bodies?
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Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

The blood goes down the sink drain, into the sewer system.

I am not a mortician, but I work for a medical examiner/coroner. During an autopsy, most blood is drained from the decedent. This is not on purpose, but a result of gravity. Later a mortician may or may not embalm, depending on the wishes of the family.

Autopsies are done on a table that has a drain at one end; this drain is placed over a sink—a regular sink, with a garbage disposal in it. The blood and bodily fluids just drain down the table, into the sink, and down the drain. This goes into the sewer, like every other sink and toilet, and (usually) goes to a water treatment plant.

You may be thinking that this is biohazardous waste and needs to be treated differently. [If] we can’t put oil, or chemicals (like formalin) down the drains due to regulations, why is blood not treated similarly? I would assume because it is effectively handled by the water treatment plants. If it wasn’t, I am sure the regulations would be changed.

Now any items that are soiled with blood—those cannot be thrown away in the regular trash. Most clothing worn by the decedent is either retained for evidence or released with the decedent to the funeral home—even if they were bloody.

But any gauze, medical tubing, papers, etc. that have blood or bodily fluids on them must be thrown away into a biohazardous trash. These are lined with bright red trash liners, and these are placed in a specially marked box and taped closed. These boxes are stacked up in the garage until they are picked up by a specialty garbage company. I am not sure, but I am pretty sure they are incinerated.

Additionally anything sharp or pointy—like needles, scalpels, etc.—must go into a rigid “sharps” container. When they are 2/3 full we just toss these into one of the biotrash containers.

The biotrash is treated differently, as, if it went to a landfill, then the blood (and therefore the bloodborne pathogens like Hepatitis and HIV) could be exposed to people or animals. Rain could wash it into untreated water systems.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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