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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
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

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
How Do You Steer a Bobsled?
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Quinn Rooney, Getty Images

Now that the Olympics are well underway, you might have developed a few questions about the games' equipment. For example: How does one steer a bobsled? Let's take a crack at answering this pressing query.

How do you steer a bobsled?

Bobsled teams careen down an icy, curving track at up to 90 miles per hour, so steering is no small concern. Drivers steer their sleds just like you steered your childhood sleds—by manipulating a pair of ropes connected to the sled's steel runners. The driver also gets help from the rest of the crew members, who shift their weight to aid with the steering.

Why do speed skaters wear glasses?

speed-skating

Speed skaters can fly around the ice at upwards of 40 mph, so those sunglasses-type specs they wear aren't merely ornamental. At such high speeds, it's not very pleasant to have wind blowing in your eyes; it's particularly nightmarish if the breeze is drying out your contact lenses. On top of that, there's all sorts of ice and debris flying around on a speed skating track that could send you on a fast trip to the ophthalmologist.

Some skaters also say the glasses help them see the track. American skater Ryan Bedford recently told the Saginaw News that his tinted shades help him focus on the track and filter out distracting lights and camera flashes from the crowd.

What kind of heat are the biathletes packing?

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As you might guess, there are fairly strict rules governing what sort of rifles biathletes carry on the course. They are equipped with guns chambered for .22 LR ammunition. The gun must weigh at least 3.5 kilograms without its magazines and ammunition, and the rifle has to have a bolt action or a straight-pull bolt rather than firing automatically or semi-automatically.

Is a curling stone really made of stone?

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You bet it is, and it's not just any old stone, either. Curling enthusiasts swear by a very specific type of granite called ailsite that is only found on the Scottish island of Ailsa Craig. Ailsite supposedly absorbs less water than other types of stone, so they last longer than their competitors.

Ailsa Craig is now a wildlife sanctuary, so no new ailsite has been quarried since 2002. As a result, curling stones are incredibly expensive. Kays of Scotland, which has made the stones for every Olympics in which curling has been an official event, gets prices upwards of $1,500 per stone.

What about the brooms?

The earliest curling brooms were actual brooms made of wood with straw heads. Modern brooms, though, are a bit more technologically advanced. The handles are usually made of carbon fiber, and the heads can be made of synthetic materials or natural hair from horses or hogs. Synthetic materials tend to be more common now because they pull all of the debris off of the ice and don't drop the occasional stray bristle like a natural hair broom might.

What are the ski jumpers wearing?

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It may look like a ski jumper can pull on any old form-fitting bodysuit and hit the mountain, but things are a bit more complicated than that. Their suits have to be made of a spongy material and can't be thicker than five millimeters. Additionally, the suits must allow a certain amount of air to pass through them; jumpers wearing suits without sufficient air permeability are disqualified. (This rule keeps jumpers from wearing suits that could unfairly act as airfoils.) These rules are seriously enforced, too; Norwegian skier Sigurd Petterson found himself DQed at the 2006 Torino Games due to improper air permeability.

Those aren't the only concerns, though. In 2010, judges disqualified Italian jumper Roberto Dellasega because his suit was too baggy.

What's up with the short track speed skaters' gloves?

Gloves
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If you watch a bit of short track speed skating, the need for gloves quickly becomes apparent. When the skaters go to make passes or careen around a turn, they need the gloves to keep from cutting their hands due to incidental contact with other skaters' blades.

There's more to the gloves than just safety, though. Since the skaters' hands often touch the ice during turns, they need hard fingertip coverings that won't add friction and slow them down. The tips can be made of any material as long as it's hard and smooth, but you've got to give American skater Apolo Ohno some style points for the gold-tipped left glove he broke out in 2010.

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