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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 Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

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
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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