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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
Why Is a Pineapple Called a Pineapple?
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by James Hunt

Ask an English-speaking person whether they've heard of a pineapple, and you'll probably receive little more than a puzzled look. Surely, every schoolchild has heard of this distinctive tropical fruit—if not in its capacity as produce, then as a dessert ring, or smoothie ingredient, or essential component of a Hawaiian pizza.

But ask an English-speaking person if they've ever heard of the ananas fruit and you'll probably get similarly puzzled looks, but for the opposite reason. The average English speaker has no clue what an ananas is—even though it's the name given to the pineapple in almost every other major global language.

In Arabic, German, French, Dutch, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Swedish, Turkish—even in Latin and Esperanto—the pineapple is known as an ananas, give or take local variations in the alphabet and accents. In the languages where it isn't, it's often because the word has been imported from English, such as in the case of the Japanese パイナップル (painappuru) and the Welsh pinafel.

So how is it that English managed to pick the wrong side in this fight so spectacularly? Would not a pineapple, by any other name, taste as weird and tingly?

To figure out where things went wrong for English as a language, we have to go back and look at how Europeans first encountered the fruit in question, which is native to South America. It was first catalogued by Columbus's expedition to Guadeloupe in 1493, and they called it piña de Indes, meaning "pine of the Indians"—not because the plant resembled a pine tree (it doesn't) but because they thought the fruit looked like a pine cone (umm, ... it still doesn't. But you can sort of see it.)

Columbus was on a Spanish mission and, dutifully, the Spanish still use the shortened form piñas to describe the fruit. But almost every other European language (including Portuguese, Columbus's native tongue) decided to stick with the name given to the fruit by the indigenous Tupí people of South America: ananas, which means "excellent fruit."

According to etymological sources, the English word pineapple was first applied to the fruit in 1664, but that didn't end the great pineapple versus ananas debate. Even as late as the 19th century, there are examples of both forms in concurrent use within the English language; for example, in the title of Thomas Baldwin's Short Practical Directions For The Culture Of The Ananas; Or Pine Apple Plant, which was published in 1813.

So given that we knew what both words meant, why didn't English speakers just let go of this illogical and unhelpful linguistic distinction? The ultimate reason may be: We just think our own language is better than everyone else's.

You see, pineapple was already an English word before it was applied to the fruit. First used in 1398, it was originally used to describe what we now call pine cones. Hilariously, the term pine cones wasn't recorded until 1694, suggesting that the application of pineapple to the ananas fruit probably meant that people had to find an alternative to avoid confusion. And while ananas hung around on the periphery of the language for a time, when given a choice between using a local word and a foreign, imported one, the English went with the former so often that the latter essentially died out.

Of course, it's not too late to change our minds. If you want to ask for ananas the next time you order a pizza, give it a try (though we can't say what you'd up with as a result).

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 They Build Oil Rigs in the Middle of the Ocean?
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Ryan Carlyle:

We put the rigs where the oil is!

There aren’t any rigs in the “middle” of the ocean, but it is fairly common to find major oilfields over 150 km off the coast. This happens because:

  • Shallow seas often had the correct conditions for oil formation millions of years ago. Specifically, something like an algae bloom has to die and sink into oxygen-free conditions on the sea floor, then that organic material gets buried and converted to rock over geologic time.
  • The continental shelf downstream of a major river delta is a great place for deposition of loose, sandy sediments that make good oil reservoir rocks.

These two types of rock—organic-rich source rock and permeable reservoir rock—must be deposited in the correct order in the same place for there to be economically viable oil reservoirs. Sometimes, we find ancient shallow seas (or lakes) on dry land. Sometimes, we find them underneath modern seas. In that latter case, you get underwater oil and offshore oil rigs.

In the “middle” of the ocean, the seafloor is primarily basaltic crust generated by volcanic activity at the mid-ocean ridge. There’s no source of sufficient organic material for oil source rock or high-permeability sandstone for reservoir rock. So there is no oil. Which is fine, because the water is too deep to be very practical to drill on the sea floor anyway. (Possible, but not practical.)

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

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